Sports and Disability in Advertising: How PhotoAbility is working to Change Perceptions and Attitudes with Positive Imagery


Can advertisers play a role in getting consumers to adapt to differences, be more accepting, less fearful or generally uncomfortable with those who are seen as different? Can active images of fit and healthy individuals with varying disabilities help bridge this current divide of “us vs. them?”

According to Deborah Davis, a business owner with a disability and founder of Disability Inclusive Stock Images,

“It will take time, hard work, support from our community, and lots of education to move ‘Disability Inclusive Imagery’ into a mainstream concept, and for editors to select these types of photos for their magazines or advertising. It won’t be easy, but the value of increased Inclusion, acceptance and human rights that come from positive representation makes it a worthy mission.”

All images courtesy of PhotoAbility.

Whether it is a marathon, water or snow skiing, horseback riding, tennis, kayaking, WCMX, off-roading, mountain climbing, etc., there is increased participation in adaptive sports and recreation, and this is being captured by quality photographers who are seeking an outlet and a market for this type of imagery.

These types of images are being represented more and more in society as sport and recreation has become a well-funded and supported agenda within the disability sector.

The call for this is even a part of the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD): “Participation in cultural life, recreation, leisure and sport.” (Article 30)

Then there are nonprofit groups, like Achilles International and The Challenged Athletes Foundation, whose purpose is to provide access and opportunity in communities, not only in the US, but throughout the world. Chris Holcomb, a C 6-7 fully independent user of a manual wheelchair and wheelchair athlete, works for SE Region of Achilles. Chris also serves as an example of “inspiration and hope,” traveling with fellow disabled ambassadors to places like Columbia and Poland. He is sponsored by grants and hosted by US Embassies to visit hospitals and disabled persons groups providing wheelchairs, equipment, and role models for the benefits that access, equality and fitness can provide.

TSpeer Me 6 - Sports and Disability in Advertising: How PhotoAbility is working to Change Perceptions and Attitudes with Positive Imagery The Challenged Athletes Foundation encourages participation by giving away grants to individuals so they can do everything from buying a handcycle, taking horse riding and judo lessons, to purchasing adaptive equipment of all kinds to enable participation in sports. It is the mission of the Challenged Athletes Foundation to “provide opportunities and support to people with physical disabilities so they can pursue active lifestyles through physical fitness and competitive athletics”. The Challenged Athletes Foundation believes that involvement in sports at any level “increases self-esteem, encourages independence and enhances quality of life“.

Normalizing disability via greater inclusion and repetition in advertising may be the answer to the desire of those who want to be seen as equal but different, accomplished and capable athletes and citizens.

According to the Society for Disability Studies representatives Beth A. Haller, Ph.D. and Sue Ralph, Ph.D.:

“Historically, advertising’s emphasis on beauty and bodily perfection led to exclusion of disabled people in the images,” according to Disability Studies scholar Harlan Hahn (1987). Also, the non-disabled audience members’ fears of becoming disabled and viewing images of disability made businesses hesitant to use disabled people as models. Hahn says that disabled people’s ‘inability’ to ever fit within a context of beautiful bodies rendered them invisible. He explains that advertising promotes a specific “acceptable physical appearance” that it then reinforces. These advertising images tell society who is acceptable in terms of appearance and that transfers to whom it is acceptable to employ, associate with, communicate with, and value.

Hahn saw signs of hope in changing societal perceptions of disabled people through advertising. He cites many historical examples in which societal perceptions of physical appearances/attributes changed over time. Therefore, in the modern understanding of diversity as a profitable undertaking for businesses, the cultural meaning of disability imagery in advertising has been changing for the better (Haller & Ralph, 2001). As Hahn predicted, some social attitudes changed, and advertising that features disabled people became associated with profitability because of the audience’s desire to see ‘real life’ in images. For example, Dickinson (1996) reported that households with a disabled person (49%) and those without one (35%) valued accurate advertising images of disabled people and were likely to buy products and services that showed sensitivity to disabled people’s needs.”

The market for disability images is immature but growing and there are too few market leaders outside the advocacy/disability product/service providers’ area using images of people with a disability in a consistent manner.

Candace 2014 001 - Sports and Disability in Advertising: How PhotoAbility is working to Change Perceptions and Attitudes with Positive ImageryCandace Cable, a gold medal winning Paralympian and blogger for the Christopher Reeves Foundation as well as an advocate and educator for disability issues eloquently stated:

“There is an underlying feeling of subconscious exclusion toward people with disabilities which is pervasive in our society. My feeling is the subconscious exclusion is, in part, due to outdated images of people with disabilities. Sports have the ability to cross boundaries and update those images”., via its online stock image library, offers a wide range of sports related imagery for purchase. PhotoAbility, as a new company born from the entrepreneurial spirit, appreciates the assistance and support it was given by others in our community and strongly believes in giving back and supporting the success of others with disabilities.

The more individuals who have access to equipment that allows them to get out and active in recreational and sports activities, either leisurely or competitively, the more positive health and self-esteem and social interaction there is…all with positive implications to society. The question that seeks to answer is: why aren’t more mainstream advertisers taking advantage of the popularity of this theme and what needs to happen to see a real increase in the use of imagery of persons with disabilities?


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PhotoAbility was established in March 2012 by Deborah Davis and Bill Forrester with the goal of providing high quality, unique, non-medically oriented imagery of persons with disabilities for purchase by the advertising, marketing and media sectors. The Commercial Stock Image Library specializes in positive and “Inclusive” images of people with a disability in leisure, lifestyle and travel settings.

The 2000+ inclusive images depicted in the PhotoAbility gallery are designed to impact attitudinal bias, change perception and provide motivation to eliminate and reduce social, structural and professional barriers. A wave of change reflected in popular media and advertising can make an impact on laws and attitudes around the globe, and on how many with differing abilities view themselves.

For more information and to view’s positive, inclusive Stock Images, please visit

deborahD 150x150 - Sports and Disability in Advertising: How PhotoAbility is working to Change Perceptions and Attitudes with Positive Imagery

Deborah Davis

Deborah is a Speaker, Disability Inclusion Consultant, Entrepreneur, Writer and Business Owner of Wheelchair Lifestyle Enterprise Push Living Inc.

She was a Former Dancer, Accident Survivor (C 6-7 Spinal Cord Injury resulting in incomplete Quadriplegia 1985), College grad (BBA Finance 1991 U of Miami), with a background in Sales and Marketing and Non Profit Development and Management.

She is now embarked on new path creating a market for Disability Inclusive Stock Images with the creation of and publishing an online enterprise: The mission is to create Inclusion for people with disabilities through stock images for advertising, marketing and editorial uses, providing accessible properties for travel, swap or purchase, publishing an online magazine for improved health and well-being, providing information and opportunities for Accessible Travel, and operating an online store with products that improve lives.

She is most passionate about building a network of people with disabilities who are empowering, supporting and creating a more inclusive world. Personally, she is a mother of two beautiful, wise and exceptionally bright young women, and residing in South Florida.

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